Libya: a conflict between hope and pragmatism | James Sater

Turkey’s recent intervention appears to have dramatically raised the stakes for war-torn Libya. JAMES SATER, lecturer at the University of Malta’s International Relations department, considers the implications for the international peace process

There has been a state of open civil war in Libya for the past four years during which the UN-recognised Government of National Accord has ceded 70% of Libyan territory to the advancing Libyan National Army, under General Khalifa Haftar. Yet it is only now with Turkey’s announcement of active involvement in the conflict – that the situation has escalated into an international emergency. Why has Turkey’s intervention resulted in such a sudden spike in international interest In Libya?

I think Turkey’s policy shift on Libya may at this stage only be symbolic: being limited only to the sending of a small number of advisors. But it confirms a trend that we have seen in Turkey over the past few years, away from multilateralism and diplomacy and more focused on its sovereign interests and military capacity. In this respect, its recent intervention in Syria already raised alarm bells, especially in Europe. After all, such interventions have quite often had dramatic geopolitical and humanitarian implications.

When Turkey intervened in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, it divided the Kurdish zone into two, leading to another humanitarian emergency, as it allowed Syrian governmental forces to intervene with full force. We have always understood that Turkey has interests in Kurdish controlled Syria; and Turkey tends to take military decisions on their own, against the advice of their NATO allies.

So, the potential for another dramatic change in Libya is once again very high. For while the 30 or so advisors may be a symbolic gesture, Turkey might be providing other types of assistance, in the form of technical equipment, drones, etc. Certainly, its involvement in Libya corresponds to other tactical shifts in Turkey’s larger strategy in the region.

There are, however, two sides to any conflict: while the GNA portrays Haftar as a war-monger who intends to precipitate a totalitarian regime in Libya, he himself projects himself as a unifying ‘liberator’. Which of those views is more accurate?

I wouldn’t attach too much importance to what Libyan politicians say about each other, at this stage. It is, after all, quite common for any government to describe its opponents as ‘supporters of totalitarianism’… because totalitarianism, like terrorism, is a dirty word in politics. On his part, Haftar claims that he is the only one capable of unifying Libya, and bringing a strong, credible government to the country. He is also an anti-Islamist… and this appears to be the one of the first major driving forces that led to him being supported, first by a number of powerful individuals in his stronghold of Benghazi, and later by various countries.

Haftar can therefore claim that his intention is to save Libya from falling under the control of radical Islamist groups; and he argues that he is the only one who can do that…

But the GNA doesn’t seem to represent the forces of radical Islamism either… otherwise it would hardly be supported by the United Nations…

Part of the trouble with the GNA is that it is unclear which of the political forces are actually represented within it, or not. Certainly, it does not include the radical Islamists of IS who were holding Sirte until 2016; but conservative Islamist groups are represented. And there are also different groups which lay claim to different forms of legitimacy: one that was elected in 2012 – a very long time ago – and another which was elected in 2014, when very few Libyans participated in the vote. These two groups were challenging each other back then: proposing different forms of governments, different types of Parliament… and often fighting each other, with their own militia groups.

They are not the type of ‘democrats’ we might associate with in Europe. This is why the international recognition received in 2016 – when the Government of National Accord was established – was so vital for them to become politically effective in Libya and a credible interlocutor in international affairs and, especially, oil exports.

But as things stand in Libya today, it is not only a question of ‘who the radical Islamists are’. That is a label one can use to obtain international support; and both the GNA and General Haftar have done precisely that… gaining the support of different groups in the process.

General Haftar used the ‘fight against Islamists’ label to gain the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, ultimately, Russia. GNA did it to gain American, British, French, UN and now Qatari support when it supported the onslaught on Islamic State groups in Sirte.

But the rise in international concern about Libya is not due only to the actions of other countries – in this case, Turkey – in the region. Recently, General Haftar has launched a series of military campaigns in a push to capture Tripoli: Sirte is part of that project, as the town is a stepping stone to the capital – strategically located halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi.

The trouble is that, with Haftar in control of Sirte, it becomes difficult for the UN-led peace initiative to continue as planned. The first part of the UN envoy Ghassan Salemé’s three-point initiative, a ceasefire, is impossible to achieve as long as the military lines keep shifting.

So, the fact that in this conflict, military forces are still moving – and that foreign support or involvement, including now Turkey’s, can go on to make a decisive tactical difference to the outcome – jeopardises the reconciliation process. It makes it difficult to reach compromises; even dirty ones, such as having warlords in government.

This is one of the unfortunate, often inevitable consequences of many post-conflict settlements. Warlords are already in government, and will continue to be in government; so real reconciliation – including transitional justice and penalties for perpetrators of war crimes – is often set aside. This also means that human rights abuses will not be addressed. Over the past year alone, 120,000 people have fled from Tripoli, and other human tragedies have been taking place across the country.

Nonetheless, the GNA remains (for now) the only internationally-recognised government in Libya; yet despite enjoying the support of the United Nations, there has been no international effort to protect it as a legitimate government. Couldn’t it be argued, then, that Turkey’s offer of military support is a case of stepping in to ensure that the GNA’s mandate is respected?

That’s always a good point; and it is usually – not always – valid for a short period of time. It assumes that the military intervention will be a decisive one, which is hardly ever the case, as one country’s support may only trigger more support from a rival. In this respect, the case of Russia and Syria has been an exception, yet the humanitarian catastrophe caused in Syria will stay with us for many generations.

Whether Turkey is as committed to the cause as the other parties involved – the UAE, Egypt and increasingly Russia – is quite questionable. Its involvement may merely contribute to the intensity and length of the conflict. And as the conflict intensifies, so too will the casualties, and the resulting human tragedies. Ironically, Turkey may not be directly dealing with the consequences of the human toll, but that is rather left for the European Union, and, as the nearest EU country, Malta.

Malta has always prided itself on its intense knowledge and experience of Libya, and – up to a certain extent – its ability to mediate between North Africa and Europe. Yet the Maltese government was not invited to the upcoming Libya talks in Germany; nor appears to have been consulted for its expertise at any point in the peace process. Does this indicate a waning of Maltese influence on any ongoing Libyan peace talks?

When it comes to negotiating international agreements, local expertise on the ground is often – not always – less relevant than having a strong diplomatic outreach, or a strong bargaining position. In the case of Libya right now, the big international players are Turkey and Russia, it seems. This may explain Germany’s diplomatic involvement as a possible ‘deal-maker’. Germany has very intimate relations with both countries. This doesn’t mean that it is guaranteed to succeed; but it does mean that Germany has a good bargaining position, from which to try and get at least those two countries to the negotiating table.

So, I believe that it is not always the good relations that may exist between countries, or their shared history, that allows countries to play a particular role. Sometimes, it is just big-power diplomacy that allows some countries to present themselves very forcefully in international diplomacy. Sometimes, however, it is the smaller countries that are better positioned; because of, among other things, their neutral stances.

Perhaps ironically, the fact that there has been a history of relations between Malta and Libya – with ups and downs, and lots of controversies – may have impeded Malta from capitalising on its small, neutral status in this particular case. Having good relations and a shared history doesn’t always work to boost the credibility of one’s own diplomatic activities. Think of France and Algeria, UK and India/Pakistan, or Germany and Israel, and you see that past relations often impede diplomatic activity.

Recent developments, however, seem to suggest that the European Union is itself divided on the issue of Libya: France and Italy, in particular, appear to backing opposite sides. Does this mean that the EU is no longer a credible player in Libyan peace negotiations, either? 

What lies at the core here is that there are economic interests; and these interests divide France and Italy, both of which have their own preferences based on their ability to exploit Libya’s resources for their own advantage. That is a big problem, because both countries have, from the very beginning, been involved in questions of the economic spoils that are now being divided among those who had preferential agreements with Libya.

Both countries also have views on other conflicts in the Mediterranean, surrounding the issue of migration. Italy maybe more so than France; nonetheless, the vision of creating a stable government in Libya is crucial for both countries, as it is for the European Union as a whole. We all want better ways of dealing with the flow of migration that is coming through Libya.

Up to a point, then, it is almost natural that the European Union may find itself impeded in its policy responses, because of the underlying questions – some might say ‘tensions’, but I prefer to call them questions – about what the EU’s best interests are, with respect to Libya.

Politicians, after all, respond to their own constituencies; so it is difficult for 27+1 member states to agree upon a common policy response, because of the different constituencies that exist within the European Union. As a result, European states usually take up positions against further violence, and in favour of a negotiated settlements. In this case, that means supporting the Government of National Accord in Libya and the UN sponsored Peace Plan.

So, I think that Europe has a role to play in negotiating the differences that exist in Libya. Often its policies are camouflaged as ‘multilateralism’: that is, signing up to the UN-supported peace process, which also recognises that the GNA has a mission to conduct a transition process, towards not just peace, but also towards a new form of electoral politics. That is the mission most EU countries have signed up to.

But with the conflict itself now shaping this very process, certain questions inevitably arise. Can we continue to support a process that is facing a dead-end? Is it practical? This, I believe, was one of the questions the French President Emmanuel Macron was asking himself, when he suggested opening up the peace talks to all participants in the conflict and invited them to Paris, including General Haftar.

This was immediately criticised, on the basis that it would imply ‘rewarding’ someone for taking violent, military actions; for acting outside the internationally-accepted peace process that Europe is trying to promote. And such criticism is to be expected; up to a point, it is a criticism regularly levelled at ‘pragmatism’ in international diplomacy… as opposed to the noble but often impractical aim of not rewarding warlords that act outside of the international law and UN provided legitimacy.

The two key questions in international politics and diplomacy remain the place of ethics, and the great uncertainty over wished for outcomes. A narrow-minded focus on interests made France invite Muammar Gaddafi to an official state visit in 2007, ensuring not only expensive military purchases, but also cooperation to clampdown on Sub-Saharan irregular migration through Libya.

Shall democratic leaders forget their values and universal human rights declarations, once foreign policies are conducted? Or should they stick to those values – blindly, sometimes – and, by extension, accept that UN peace processes have led all participants to a dead-end? In turn, pragmatism can come at an ethical price, and may have long-term implications that are difficult to shoulder.